“You can sleep in a shack, you can sleep under a bridge, but you can still look smart”

Loux the Vintage Guru in We are Dandy by Rose Callahan and Nathaniel Adams

Thomas Carlyle wrote, “A dandy is a clothes wearing man, a man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of clothes.”1 Perhaps Carlyle, in his single most difficult and at the same time profound work, was by no means disparaging. After all Carlyle’s book, the title of which means “tailor retailored” presents an entire philosophy of clothes.

The Oxford English Dictionary conjectures that the word “dandy” may be a shortening of the word “jack-a-dandy”, in use between the 16th and 18th centuries, whereby “dandy” in the 18th century meant exquisite, swell. North Americans are familiar with the word in the ditty “Yankee Doodle”. The OED says a dandy is “one who studies above everything to dress elegantly and fashionably”.

Rose Callahan (photographer) and Nathaniel Adams (author) have published their second study of this phenomenon, We are Dandy: The Elegant Gentleman Around the World, as a “global survey of men’s style and elegance”. However, this is an uncommon book. Yes, it has coffee table format, like many fashion books and museum catalogues, but it is neither. If one were to be confronted with this volume in any one of the few serious bookstores whose selection is not dictated by chain store or talk show fads, one might be surprised, but only just.

The classic men’s style books are devoted to the history or the publicity of the upper class men and their mannequins of the second half of the 20th century.2 They can be said—for all their advice—to be guides of how to dress and act like the white men who have been responsible for so much carnage, misery and economic mayhem, what made and keeps that class so wealthy and powerful. Thus the style icon of the “American Century” is the late3 US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, with his “typical New England understatement”, earning him a reputation among his British cousins as America’s best-dressed diplomat.

Of course, the violence he promoted, like helping put the US in control of South Korea at the cost of at least three million Korean lives, is not what comes to mind when one sees photographs of him in his “Ivy League” look.

We are Dandy is not a Knigge for would-be power brokers.4 It begins with the world’s premier menswear trade show, the biennial Pitti Uomo, held in Florence, Italy. However, the choice is more anthropological than commercial. The first Florence fashion trade fair was a press exhibition of Italian women’s fashion in 1951. It started the “Made in Italy” trend, which resuscitated the Italian clothing industry after the devastation of World War II—as an initiative to revive a major sector of the Italian economy. The men’s wear exhibition was first held in 1975. Italy has been a centre of textiles and tailoring since the Renaissance when the Venetian Republic was the principal link between Europe and Asia—through the silk trade. Today Italy is still home to thousands of family-run and artisanal businesses producing everything from gloves and umbrellas to shirts and suits. The dominance of the British Empire led European tailoring to cater to the English sartorial taste.5 Italians converted the robust but staid English style into the lighter and more colourful clothing people take for granted today. This was possible because as Flusser wrote:

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, men lavished more money on their attire than any other period of modern history.6

Meanwhile the Pitti Uomo has become more than a trade fair. It is now a meeting place for men from around the world who have developed what to the average man may seem an extreme interest in clothes. Adams writes:

The occasional ridiculousness of Pitti Uomo, so easy to rip on for a hip resident of New York, London or Paris, takes on a new significance when seen through the eyes of an aspiring dandy from somewhere less famous for fashion, like (South) Africa or Namibia. To these men, Pitti Uomo and all its attendant self-promotion and Instagramming, is a chance to feel connected to a larger cultural fraternity—a global movement.

Their first book, I am Dandy, was an attempt to grasp dandyism as a cultural phenomenon.7 Their second volume arose from the realisation that the dandy may have its roots in Europe’s sartorial history but can no longer be viewed as purely European. That is what makes this book not only entertaining—which books have a right to be—but immensely relevant. If and when there is writing about Africa, it is usually depicted as a place without food, let alone clothes. The standard fare for the literate comprises reports by so-called humanitarian relief organisations or official “news” and information, about which wars are being fought, by whom over what plunder (e.g. diamonds, oil, coltan, etc.) is to be extracted from the still quite “dark” continent.8 A modest number of sincere scholars and literary talents manage to get attention in the “quality media”. Given that European and American relations to Africa go back more that 500 years, it ought to be extremely embarrassing how little coverage the 40-odd countries there get.

We are Dandy is a wonderful exception. Adams explained:

We originally had a long list of cities in Africa: Lagos, Nigeria; Brazzaville, Congo; Windhoek, Namibia; Luanda, Angola; Johannesburg, South Africa. In the end we settled on Johannesburg, which is a continental fashion hub, and, because of the history of apartheid, a fascinating place to look at generational differences, race relations, economic inequality and their resulting effects on dandyism.

Eight of the 56 dandy profiles are of men from Southern Africa. One profile is of a dandy from Cameroon and another of a Trinidadian living in the US. Fifteen are from Asia. That leaves just over half (31) to the Europeans and North Americans. Since dandyism stems from Europe this allocation is not illogical.

Although there are several who have good jobs, often as art or design directors in the fashion or allied fields, the majority are not connected with the menswear business at all. They have ordinary occupations ranging from small shop owners or clerks to cooks and restaurant operators. Of course, there are artists and a few writers, too. But statesmen, CEOs and fashion-conscious billionaires have been carefully overlooked. What distinguishes these working and middle class gentlemen is not how much they can afford but that their interest in attire disposes them to spend whatever they have on clothes, rather than cars or other “manly” pursuits. Although each man profiled enjoys a certain local notoriety at home; none is a fashion grandee.

The Cameroon-born dandy Defustel Ndjoko saved all he could as a young man to get to Brussels, where he could pursue his fascination and earn the money he needed to pay for it. Ndjoko told the authors9:

In Africa people don’t understand. I’m from a Third World country and I want to prove to people that there’s more behind fashion. I want them to see that it’s not just about people spending money and being luxurious—there’s history to be learned, there is a benefit to style and getting dressed, and fashion is important both for economic and cultural reasons. Africa has potential and resources they can use. My dream is to make an impact on fashion with African culture.

Indeed there is more behind fashion and there is history to be learned, especially if one is to understand the attraction of “retro” in the digital age. Alan Flusser wrote:

Male adornment has blossomed in part because of the cultural shift toward personal expression and individuality that took place in the latter third of the twentieth century. During the 1950s, the typical businessman literally hid behind his grey flannel suit. The era’s political climate mandated conservatism and uniformity.

What Flusser did not say is that the reaction of the white Western ruling elite—those men on whose style he focuses—had imposed ideological conformity in opposition to the radical movements fueled by the Great Depression at home and the independence struggles being waged to end colonial exploitation abroad. It is a striking feature in the book, especially among the non-European men, that the clothing style is either from the 30s or the late 1950s. “Loux the Vintage Guru”, from Windhoek, described wearing vintage as both a necessity and an opportunity. Low income made second-hand a necessity. But dressing vintage also became an opportunity to connect with the past, his personal past, that of his country and the continent. He sees his mission as restoring a sense of self-pride to younger generations—the same sense of pride that propelled independence and resistance movements throughout Africa, including the struggle against apartheid. “We don’t carry ourselves the same way our parents did because for them it was a matter of pride,” he laments, “we lost respect in how we present ourselves.”

Another South African, “Bob, the Stylist” told the authors that in his development he researched Black history around the world and his style shifted from entertainers to men such as Malcolm X10, Patrice Lumumba11, the first democratic leader of the Congo, Ethiopian leader and Rastafarian messiah Haile Selassie12, and anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko13

Old films and photographs show young white college students in the 1960s with their sartorial models like Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Mao. But overall the brief period might better be called “anti-fashion” or “anti-style”. It was brief because it did not take long for what Adam Curtis called “the happiness machine”—namely the corporate propaganda system—to seize the trends in middle-class youth rebellion and convert them into the “Pepsi Generation”.14

By contrast the cultural iconography of African independence struggles is relatively unknown or ignored. One has to recall that during Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment it was unlawful to publish his photograph in the South African media.15 The same applied to anyone subject to a “banning order”. Patrice Lumumba was brutally murdered as a young man and his body was never recovered. Steve Biko was murdered in custody of the apartheid-regime’s SAP.16 Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were both murdered by the age of 40!17 The one revolutionary style icon of the era to survive Andy Warhol’s portraiture was Mao.

It is all too easy to dismiss style and clothing from serious political discussion. However, since the French Revolution made powdered wigs and knee breeches politically inappropriate and the woman’s movement retired the crinoline there has always been a shift in clothing style to accompany any major challenge to the political status quo. The return of the flat-top haircut and many other military style elements of the “white” 1940s and 1950s is probably no coincidence given the ideological swing to the right since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan set the fashion. It is a serious mistake to ignore or trivialise the prevailing fashion or style trends. If they do not help predict, they certainly provide indicators of where a society is or in which direction it may be moving.

We are Dandy is not a revolutionary book. However, we are not in revolutionary times. Callahan and Adams have produced a beautiful book that draws attention to individuals in the extreme. The men shown in these pages are nonetheless endowed with historical consciousness and at least suspicion of the contemporary aesthetic. Some even aspire to challenge—to the extent individuals can—the questionable values and attitudes they see as detrimental, not for nostalgia but human dignity. In the absence of an environment conducive to classical political organisation, the responses to the destructive forces of our age have been increasingly isolated despite, or perhaps aggravated by, the illusions of digital media. On the one hand these dandies became more visible by virtue of socialising media. On the other they are all members of living communities. They live in real neighbourhoods where they are taken seriously.

Mr Vusi Kunene is a competitor in “Swenkas”, a South African sartorial subculture in which working class men dress in flamboyant suits and engage in competitive pose-offs for prizes.

The code of the swenka is almost a religion, you’re not allowed to drink or smoke in front of the swenkas; no weed. This enables us to become role models. We have self-respect and dignity. Through clothes we achieve status in society.

Perhaps the dandy today, at least in the periphery, is not unlike the itinerant preacher of earlier eras. Instead of fiery rhetoric and threatening damnation, he makes his whole appearance a sermon, not for the latest fad or brand, but for a liberation of personality from corporate branding. One cannot be just “a little bit dandy”. As Adams explained when they chose the people to profile, “we were especially wary of those who seemed too eager to be in the book, as well as those whose dandyism was in its initial stages; we would have hated to have them turn up at the book launch in jeans and a T-shirt explaining it was just a phase.”

This was not yet another project to make the already famous more famous. The dandyism that captivates Callahan and Adams lies in the fact that these men “are practicing their dandyism for its own pleasurable sake, and… doing it even when nobody is looking.”

Call it eccentricity. Or better than that, call it sincerity. The characters depicted in We are Dandy are not cynics. They are focused on the culture and history in which their lives are anchored. If their concerns appear superficial rather than those of great revolutionaries, they still cannot be relegated to the ranks of reactionary followers. They are in the tradition of the Romantics to whom we owe many of the constructive changes in the human condition.18  Maybe some of these dandies are the revolutionaries of our time. They live and convince by example—a very traditional way to affect change. Ernest Hemingway—who witnessed and wrote about much of the revolutionary fervour of the 20th century—once wrote “We have come out of the time when obedience, the acceptance of discipline, intelligent courage and resolution, were most important, into that more difficult time when it is a person’s duty to understand the world rather than simply fight for it.”19 The desire to understand the world has certainly become a form of dandyism today.

  1. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 1821. []
  2. Two examples are Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion (2002) and the German vanity author Bernhard Roetzel’s Der Gentleman: Handbuch der klassischen Herrenmode (2012). Flusser wrote two previous books (1981, 1996) on the subject. Together they widely cited on questions of proper style and tailoring. In Europe, the former PR consultant Roetzel has successfully promoted his cliché-filled manual, which reads like thinly veiled brand hype for parvenus. []
  3. Dean Acheson (1893-1971) US Secretary of State (1949-1953) He also was a member of the Covington & Burling firm of mercenary lawyers, a firm that has harboured many a member of the US regime’s “secret team” before and after government service. []
  4. “Knigge“ is a German colloquialism for any guide to “correct” behaviour. Derived from Baron Adolph Knigge, who wrote his Über den Umgang mit Menschen (1788) in the wake of the French Revolution, it discusses proper dealings among people with the abeyance of court etiquette. As such it was seen as a guide for correct bourgeois behaviour. []
  5. Paris’ fame as the centre of women’s haute couture began with the establishment of the English house of Worth in 1858. In Naples, an English guest, so goes the story, found his hotel overlooking the Gulf of Naples in serious financial straits and wrote a cheque to solve the problem, becoming the owner of the Grand Hotel Parker’s (hence the rather un-Italian name). It was subsequently modernised to meet the standards of the English upper-middle class on holiday. The popularity of the region as a holiday destination biased the Neapolitan tailors toward English tastes. []
  6. Flusser, (2002) p. 39 []
  7. Rose Callahan and Nathaniel Adams, I am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman (2013). []
  8. Coltan (abbrev. columbite-tantalite) is a mineral, which refined yields tantalum used to make capacitors for cell phones. Large deposits of the mineral are located in the Congo, especially in the eastern part of the country near Rwanda and Burundi. []
  9. Republic of Cameroon, West African country lying between Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo to the South, Nigeria to the North and Chad and the Central African Republic to the East. A colony of the German Empire until 1918, French mandate until 1960. In 1961 a union was created with British Cameroons. Estimated population: 22,534,532. Capital Yaoundé. []
  10. Malcolm X (1925-1965) was assassinated at the age of 40. Although the investigation of his murder was sufficiently defective to prevent unambiguous attribution, the role of the US regime’s secret police agencies is merely unproven. []
  11. Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) was the first popularly elected prime minister of the once Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo, called Zaire under the rule of Lumumba’s murderer, Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko (1930-1997). Lumumba was deposed, kidnapped and murdered by a conspiracy of Belgian, US and other European government agencies and industrial cartels under cover of the United Nations. Lumumba was probably the only person ever chosen by reasonably free popular elections to govern this exploited and war-torn country whose territory is larger than all of Western Europe. []
  12. Haile Selassie (1892-1975), Regent and later Emperor of Ethiopia (1916-1974), Selassie ruled Ethiopia as an absolute monarch. He died following his overthrow in 1975 at the age of 83. There is an overlap between Ethiopianism, Pan-Africanism and Rastafarianism, which apparently endowed Haile Selassie with divine attributes for which members of the latter movement also worship him. []
  13. Steve Biko (1946-1977) was leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, a grassroots anti-apartheid campaign, distinct from the more traditional African National Congress (ANC). He had been banned. Then while travelling in violation of the banning order, he was arrested, tortured and murdered by the South African Police. No one was ever charged for the murder. []
  14. Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self, a 2002 film documentary based in large part on the book, PR! A Social History of Spin (1996), Stuart Ewen. []
  15. Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was imprisoned by the SA regime from 1963 until 1990. []
  16. SAP, South African Police, also that force’s secret service, the Special Branch, now called the South African Police Service. []
  17. Martin Luther King (1929-1968) was murdered under the auspices of the regime at the age of 39. []
  18. Morse Peckham, Romanticism and Behavior (1976) Particular attention is drawn to three essays in this collection: “Rebellion and Deviance”, “The Deplorable Consequences of the Idea of Creativity”, and “The Cultural Crisis of the 1970s”. []
  19. Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees (1950). []
Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is also the author of Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa. Read other articles by T.P..